lo­cal web of life’

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

CHRISTINA Stead’s for­mer fam­ily home in the Syd­ney sub­urb of Wat­sons Bay was re­cently bought by well­heeled Soc­ceroo Mark Sch­warzer, who lives mainly in Bri­tain. He has caused a fuss by seek­ing to de­mol­ish por­tions of the house and gar­den im­mor­talised by the Aus­tralian au­thor to make way for a three-car garage and a swim­ming pool. Since there is no preser­va­tion or­der on the prop­erty and scant pub­lic recog­ni­tion of its cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance, he may well get his way.

I was re­minded of this sorry tale while read­ing Sally Heath’s in­au­gu­ral editorial as the edi­tor of Mean­jin. Heath is Mel­bourne Univer­sity Pub­lish­ing’s in-house re­place­ment for So­phie Cun­ning­ham, who left last year fol­low­ing dis­agree­ments with the Mean­jin board over the jour­nal’s direc­tion. Heath is by all ac­counts a ca­pa­ble edi­tor and an in­formed, thought­ful au­di­tor of Aus­tralian let­ters, yet when she writes that ‘‘ Mean­jin can­not be a pub­licly funded ex­er­cise aimed at bring­ing pri­vate plea­sure to a for­tu­nate few’’, I can al­most hear the ex­ca­va­tor’s en­gine kick over.

Cu­ri­ously, Heath’s first is­sue in­cludes just the sort of writers whose rhetor­i­cal sub­tlety and in­tel­lec­tual in­de­pen­dence ar­gue against the bald philis­tin­ism im­plied by her open­ing re­marks. It as though her editorial in­stincts re­belled against some dreary party line, sum­mon­ing to the fore the kind of writ­ing that Mean­jin has, over six decades, made its own: savoir-vivre, but from a lo­cal per­spec­tive; so­cial en­gage­ment with­out the di­dac­tic urge.

Rus­sian

aca­demic

and

writer

Maria Tu­markin’s es­say asy­lum-seek­ers, for ex­am­ple, pro­vides de­li­ciously coun­ter­in­tu­itive start. Sto­ries with­out borders uses the suc­cesses of Viet­namese-Aus­tralian co­me­dian Anh Do and au­thor Nam Le to ask whether our na­tional re­luc­tance to sup­port mi­grants to these shores with our tax dol­lars might rep­re­sent a ‘‘ strik­ing fail­ure of the moral imag­i­na­tion’’. She goes on to de­plore ‘‘ an eerily sani­tised view of im­mi­gra­tion as a cal­cu­lated de­ci­sion driven pre­dom­i­nantly by self-in­ter­est, and self-in­ter­est of the eco­nomic kind’’.

Main­stream at­ti­tudes to­wards im­mi­gra­tion are a mir­ror, in other words, in which we see our mean-spirit­ed­ness and cyn­i­cism re­flected in all its ug­li­ness. You may dis­agree with her cri­tique but Tu­markin is surely cor­rect to ar­gue that shar­ing the true sto­ries of new mi­grants and their chil­dren is the best proof we have of the dif­fi­culty and sin­cer­ity of their un­der­tak­ing. Sto­ries like those of Le have en­riched our cul­ture in large yet fi­nally un­quan­tifi­able ways.

Of course, de­spite Le’s suc­cess, in the free mar­ket of nar­ra­tives there are rarely many tak­ers for sto­ries like those de­scribed by Tu­markin or Michael Gi­a­cometti (who writes here of the long-haul dif­fi­cul­ties and com­plex cul­tural trans­ac­tions be­hind pub­li­ca­tion of books by or about in­dige­nous Aus­tralians) and Jane Sullivan (who med­i­tates on mul­ti­cul­tural lit­er­a­ture in a mono­lin­gual so­ci­ety and the prob­lems of trans­la­tion). The irony is that only in the pages of jour­nals such as Mean­jin are pub­lic monies used to a pub­lic good in spite of wider pub­lic un­in­ter­est.

More cu­ri­ous still is Heath’s in­clu­sion of dis­cus­sions on the im­por­tance of place. Mran-Maree Laing’s Feel­ing the Heat os­ten­si­bly re­lates the late-night party the au­thor held dur­ing the hottest night on record in Syd­ney, ear­lier this year. But it soon de­volves into a per­sonal es­say on the ways in which our built en­vi­ron­ment and so­cial norms alien­ate us from our cli­matic re­al­ity. ‘‘ We are go­ing to have to learn to live in the world again,’’ she writes, and suf­fer the heat rather than turn the air­con­di­tioner up and so help ‘‘ cor­ral our­selves into an un­bear­able fu­ture’’.

This same point is made again later in the vol­ume by Tim Flan­nery, in a tran­script of a Perth Writers Fes­ti­val con­ver­sa­tion with Amer­i­can au­thor An­nie Proulx on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween art and science. He speaks of his mod­est home on the Hawkes­bury River out­side Syd­ney, where he spends most of the year out­side: . . . you feel the weather on your skin, and the birds and an­i­mals — you watch the rhythms of birds and an­i­mals come and go and it does some­thing pro­found to you. It roots you in a par­tic­u­lar en­vi­ron­ment in a way that’s very hard to ar­tic­u­late.

This ‘‘ lo­cal web of life’’ (as Proulx calls it) is one that Mean­jin it­self is po­ten­tially with­draw­ing from. In­stead of an of­fice, the mag­a­zine op­er­ates from a hot desk within MUP. Be­yond its quar­terly ap­pear­ance in printed form, Heath writes air­ily of ‘‘ text on the in­ter­net, video or live events’’. But a Mean­jin up­loaded is not nec­es­sar­ily a Mean­jin im­proved. Heath has done a won­der­ful job in a com­pressed time-pe­riod in this edi­tion: she de­serves the ben­e­fit of the doubt.

But if the jour­nal is to make the tran­si­tion on­line with its cul­tural and lit­er­ary cre­den­tials in­tact, it will need some as­sis­tance. Watch closely: if you see an an­nounce­ment of a con­sid­er­able boost to the jour­nal’s cof­fers to pay for the mul­ti­me­dia film­mak­ers and web mon­keys nec­es­sary to an ex­panded un­der­tak­ing, you’ll know Mean­jin’s back­ers are sin­cere. If you don’t, well, you can be sure that the ide­ol­ogy of the bot­tom line has re­sulted in the de­struc­tion of one more beau­ti­ful and ap­par­ently use­less gar­den. Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is The Aus­tralian’s chief lit­er­ary critic.

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